Julian Assange has a paranoid streak, the audience learns from Alex Gibney’s meticulous new documentary, We Steal Secrets. The WikiLeaks hacktivist has long made a habit of changing phones, removing the batteries from them, presumably to prevent them from being traced, and swapping out computers; he claims he’s been wiretapped and tailed; he even alleges that Kenyan associates have been victims of political assassinations. And although Assange’s professional obsession, by his own telling, is the pursuit of truth and justice through transparency, he is personally consumed with a desire for privacy. Given the contradictory nature of its central subject, it’s not surprising that We Steal Secrets is a study in paradoxes.
Defining Assange proves a challenge — he refused to give Gibney an interview, but the night before the limited release of We Steal Secrets, WikiLeaks posted a full transcript of the film, accompanied by commentary that nitpicks everything down to the choice of title. (That, in itself, hints at Assange’s overbearing personality.)
Gibney relies heavily on footage of Assange collected by others, much of which depicts the WikiLeaks founder as physically graceless. We see him dancing alone under a strobe light, hunching over a laptop, wearing zip-up boots with a business suit. Assange’s awkwardness makes him seem less lofty when he waxes poetic about transparency.
One gets the sense that Gibney struggled to pin down exactly what Assange believes. He presents excerpts of Assange explaining his motivations: “I like being brave. . . . I like being inventive. . . . I also like defending victims. And I am a combative person, so I like crushing bastards.”
Australian intellectual Robert Manne describes Assange as “neither a right-wing libertarian nor a standard leftist.” Manne adds: “I think he’s a humanitarian anarchist.” The U.S. Department of State has also called him an anarchist, and in a 2010 profile in The New Yorker, Raffi Khatchadourian writes that Assange “had come to understand the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution.”
If it’s true, as these writers suggest, that Assange rejects the very notion of legitimate government, then it’s no wonder that he makes little distinction between authoritarian regimes and liberal democracies. Gibney notes that Assange, a native of Australia, doesn’t call any country home. Furthermore, if he doesn’t accept the fundamental legitimacy of any state, he can’t accept the legitimacy of political action. Indiscriminate sabotage of power is the logical alternative.
But anarchy flounders because it locates all value in the individual while allowing no real protections for individual rights. The result is brutal, as We Steal Secrets unflinchingly portrays. Viewers get the sense that, fundamentally, Julian Assange’s raison d’être is Julian Assange: He is shown admiring photographs of himself on the A1 pages of various newspapers, and he’s repeatedly described by others in the film as someone with a rock-star personality. He is clearly enchanted with his own celebrity, but incredibly reckless when it comes to the lives of others.
The 75,000 documents related to the war in Afghanistan that he published identified by name about 100 Afghans who had cooperated with the U.S. government; this put them at mortal risk, a fact that WikiLeaks still denies. British journalist Nick Davies claims he raised this point with Assange before the documents’ release. “He said if an Afghan civilian helps coalition forces, he deserves to die,” Davies reports. “He went on to explain they have the status of a collaborator or informant.”
Gibney profiles not only Assange but also Private First Class Bradley Manning, who sneaked more than 700,000 military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. He also profiles Adrian Lamo, the hacker who once supported WikiLeaks but eventually blew the whistle on Manning’s so-called whistleblowing.
Manning is Assange’s most obvious victim, at least according to the sympathetic yet nuanced portrayal in We Steal Secrets. Manning was a small, effeminate computer geek who joined the U.S. Army at age 19 to pay for college. He struggled with his sexuality and gender, a subject that receives extensive attention in the documentary. The army initially considered discharging him but eventually made him an intelligence analyst, giving him access to the computer networks for the military and the State Department. “With a few keystrokes,” Gibney says, “a skilled user could gain access to vast streams of classified e-mails, memos, and reports from around the world.”
We Steal Secrets never makes clear why Manning chose to leak on an unprecedented scale. Manning himself seems conflicted, as we learn from his chats with Adrian Lamo. A hacker himself, Lamo tweeted about supporting WikiLeaks; shortly after that, a very lonely Manning cold-contacted him. The two formed a long-distance friendship, and Gibney excerpts their chats in sparse white letters on a black background throughout the film. As their relationship deepened, Manning opened up to Lamo, who was troubled about what he heard.
Lamo told Manning: “I’m a journalist and a minister. You can pick either, and treat this as a confession or an interview (never to be published) & enjoy a modicum of legal protection.” Manning took advantage of the offer. He not only detailed leaking classified documents but also recounted how he cross-dressed while on leave: “full on . . . wig, breastforms, dress, the works.” Gibney presents these revelations typed out in painful detail on the screen.
And as their intimate conversations continued, Lamo became increasingly worried. “I believed that [Manning’s] actions were endangering lives,” he says. He finally decided to turn their chats over to federal agents. Lamo tells Gibney’s crew that he felt it was a situation with no possible positive outcome. “[Manning] needed a friend, and I wish that I could have been a better friend,” he says. “There was a responsibility to the needs of the many rather than to the needs of Bradley Manning.” Later in the film, Lamo weeps. His decision has made him a heckled and hated man among Assange’s sizable fan base, but Lamo emerges as the only person in the film who has a coherent moral code based on something larger than self-interest.
Meanwhile, Manning was arrested, placed in solitary confinement, and put on suicide watch, the lights constantly on. Even his clothes and his blankets were confiscated. A year later, in response to public outrage, he was moved out of solitary. He will go on trial this month, charged with nearly two dozen offenses, including aiding the enemy and violating the Espionage Act. He faces life in prison. Manning is no hero, and he had no right to do what he did. However, the question remains — and despite Gibney’s best efforts, the director is never able to get a coherent answer — why a kid in his early 20s was given access to so much highly classified and potentially dangerous information.
We Steal Secrets hints that in his dealings with Manning Assange shamelessly used a troubled youth and then left him to suffer the consequences alone, a point made by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Assange’s now-estranged former second-in-command at WikiLeaks. Assange now faces a rape charge for an encounter with a woman in Sweden; he is avoiding extradition by holing up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Gibney also deserves credit for his honest portrayal of the Obama administration. He quotes Obama’s approval of Manning’s harsh detention. He includes comments from sources who describe Obama’s war leadership in a way that can only recall the Bush years. And he also notes that some U.S. government documents that have not been released publicly probably should have been — a reminder of the administration’s abysmal record on transparency.
More than two hours long, We Steal Secrets is as engaging as it is thorough. The documentary is as fair and balanced as it can be, especially considering Assange’s herculean and hypocritical efforts to control all information about himself. Then again, Assange has every reason to be afraid of transparency: The story that emerges about him is utterly damning.
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.